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The Myth of Agent Orange and Clinical Neuropsychology

The myth of Agent Orange, like a bad penny, continues to haunt both the professional as well as the lay community thirty years after Viet Nam. When faced with questions such as the possible toxic effects of chemicals such as “Agent Orange,” neuropsychologists are in the forefront of both clinical assessment as well as the ability to influence public policy regarding such issues. For those not familiar with these specialists, neuropsychologists typically hold a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and are therefore trained to work with patients who have medical, behavioral, and emotional difficulties. Following their doctoral training, neuropsychologists pursue further advanced training, usually in a medical school or neurological/ neurosurgical setting in which they specialize in diagnosing and treating the neurobehavioral effects neurological illness or injury. For those working in the clinical field and working directly with patients and not primarily research, a Board Certification procedure has been established since 1985, with only about 400 Board Certified Clinical Neuropsychologists being awarded in the United States. Uniformed psychologists in the Army and Air Force, and to some extent the Navy, have been instrumental in the development of Clinical Neuropsychology as a specialty as well as in terms of influencing both military and civilian medicine.

A number of recent inquiries have been seen among Board Certified Clinical Neuropsychologists who are still seeing malingerers with claims of "injury" from Agent Orange, demonstrating that the myths surrounding this chemical still exist 30 years later. In terms of daily clinical practice, as recently as two weeks ago the spouse of one of our physical rehabilitation patients was observed wandering all over the hospital and haranguing everyone on how he was an "Agent Orange victim" in a manner in which he appeared to be attempting also to gain hospital admission or at least manipulate staff. In addition, the nationally publicized death last year of Linda Van Devanter also helps continue to fuel the myths as an obituary distributed widely by news services claimed that she was a cancer victim as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange.

A recent inquiry by Clinical Neuropsychologists highlighted a 1983 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Korgeski, G.P. and Leon, G.R.) which showed that 100 veterans who were objectively studied appeared to demonstrate psychosomatic, emotionally based illnesses as a result of their belief that they had been harmed by this agent, but failed to indicate any objective signs of medical illness. The review of this study prompted one of the neuropsychologists who presumably has encountered patients who claim that they were "drenched" in Agent Orange and who give descriptions of its orange color while relating histrionic or fabricated stories of their injuries the following question: "What would a 'victim' of Agent Orange REALLY see?" To this day, psychologists continue to be presented with colorful stories such as “I got soaked with Agent Orange,” “I was the only survivor of my LURPS team, but I can’t give you the information since the mission was secret,” etc. Since the vast majority of current psychologists as well as other mental health professionals have never had any military experience, most have no way to evaluate such claims and therefore risk taking them at face value.

The answer, of course is... no color at all, and one would never see it!!

Like so many of the myths surrounding the war which were fabricated and then hyped by an hysterical press as well as an anti-American agenda, one of the paradoxes is that "Agent Orange" is not only colorless, but was sprayed in such small amounts that one could never have seen anything unless one were involved directly in the spraying. Several herbicides were actually used, most coming in 55 gallon drums with white, blue, purple, pink, green, and - yes - orange stripes painted on the drums. The colorless liquid in the drums with the orange stripe was normally simply called "orange," not "Agent Orange." B.G. Burkett notes that the spray equipment was calibrated to spray the equivalent of 0.009 oz of liquid per square foot on the jungle canopy, the equivalent of 9/1000 of a whiskey glass. This, added with the fact that studies showed that 70% of the herbicide never made it past the upper canopy, that dioxin degrades within 72 hours, and that troops would not operate in sprayed areas for a least 4-6 weeks after spraying meant that no one would ever SEE the stuff or "be drenched in it" unless one were doing the spraying. And, of course, since it was colorless, one would see no color then, either. In addition, the chemical does not kill trees, "devastate the landscape," etc., either - it was just an herbicide that dropped the leaves from the trees until they re-grew, just as most of us are going to do to the weeds in our yard here in a month or so.

An excellent review of the faulty science and the four decades of examination of those most exposed to Agent Orange, the Ranch Handers, is provided by B. G. Burkett in his book Stolen Valor, and data indicating any harm other than skin irritation remains lacking. He also notes that the two units of the Ranch Hand squadrons were the most decorated Air Force units of the war, even more so than some combat squadrons, and that 25 Ranch Handers lost their lives. Once again, we must not allow the courage and valor of American heroes such as these to be stolen by those who care nothing for either their own country or for the country of others who put their faith and trust in America.

One recent permutation of the myth is the death last year of Linda Van Devanter, whose obituary was run in papers across the country claiming that she was "the latest victim of Agent Orange." The author of the histrionic and flawed Home Before Morning was first assigned to the 71st Evacuation Hospital near Pleiku, where she falsely claimed nurses were fatal combat casualties on the very day of her arrival, etc. (Major Burkett asserts that only one nurse was ever killed by enemy action during the entire war, Sharon Lane, and this happened no where near the 71st; about six others had noncombatant fatal injuries. We had three nurses die last year at our hospital, all from illness or injury which happens in life.)

In addition, despite her claims of being overwhelmed by unceasing trauma cases, Burkett indicates that 105 of the 305 beds at the 71st were eliminated during her tour and she was transferred to the 67th Evac as a result of the workload steadily decreasing. She was only at the 67th in Qui Nhon for about three months before her PCS back to the States. Since there was no reason to defoliate the surgical suites of the evacuation hospitals, no one has ever been able to determine how she felt that she was ever near, much less exposed to Agent Orange. In addition, one would think that trained as a surgical nurse, one might be used to surgery. Records indicate that the average surgical load, which again was decreasing, was about four surgical cases per day, less than many of us who work in civilian surgical hospitals presently. Van Devanter is without doubt simply the latest victim of the hoax of Agent Orange as well as the hoax of her own mind, not a victim of its toxicity.

Increased knowledge such as this will help both to counter these myths as well as to continue to educate decision makers and policy makers such as Clinical Neuropsychologists so that appropriate medical decisions are made when faced with these issues that seemingly never go away.


C. Alan Hopewell, Ph.D., M. S. Psy.Pharm, ABPP
Diplomate, American Board of Professional Psychology
American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology
Master's Degree in Clinical Psychopharmacology

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Last Updated Thursday, June 03 2004 @ 08:08 AM MDT; 16,345 Hits View Printable Version